Publication + Process

Congrats to Nicki on publication day for The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel!!! To celebrate, I’m gonna share some of the cover process.

I came into the cover process for The Grandest Bookshop quite late in the piece, after all the major design decisions. Not so with The Detective’s Guide! Here, with a full cover illustration, I was involved from the start, and it was a blast.

Those of you who are super quick off the mark and have already read the book will know that the characters are a really big focus. There’s the kids, of course, and there’s also the rich (and weird) first class passengers (aka suspects). Nicki writes them all with such joy that I really wanted the cover to feature a whole bunch of characters.

Then, of course, the setting is vital. The fact that they’re on a 1920s steam liner is a really cool thing that lots of readers will love, so that’s got to be obvious. Not only obvious, but dramatic and opulent too!

Those two key components (interesting characters + huge beautiful ship) provide something of a conundrum for an illustrator. How can we make the ship look big without the characters being tiny dots? How can we show lots of characters without relegating the ship to mere backdrop? These were the questions, and I have infinite gratitude to my AD Meg Whelan at Affirm for helping me answer them.

First I had to sketch a lot of steam liners, to see what compositions might be possible and workable. These are some of the early ideas, after the first research phase. I’m still stuck between wanting to focus on the ship and wanting to focus on the characters.

But both aspects were too important to let one slide, so we pushed a little further and tried using the dock to give us some more options.

The dock was a useful idea, but the lure of actually being at sea won out! Onto colour sketches…

And then, to the final:

The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel

In one month (Feb 23) The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel by Nicki Greenberg will be out in the world! I’m a sucker for a good whodunit, and these characters and setting are fantastic. For me, creating the cover was as much about trying to convey the reasons I loved it as anything else, and it was the absolute highlight of my career thus far.

The first middle-grade novel from award-winning author Nicki Greenberg, this book is a classic whodunnit mystery set aboard a grand ocean liner in the 1920s. With first-class glitz and glamour and a deliciously plotted intrigue featuring an uppity stage star, a missing diamond, a leopard and a loveable cast of child sleuths, The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel is an exciting romp on the high seas, perfect for fans of Murder Most Unladylike and The Good Thieves.

Thank you to Meg Whelan at Affirm Press for being an incredibly supportive art director throughout the creation of the cover. Process post to follow at some point 🙂

TSM Videos dalam Bahasa Indonesia

Maafkan kesalahanku, aku masih belajar. Kalau ada kata-kata yang kasar atau tidak sopan, biarkan aku tahu.


Halo semua, saya Sylvia dan saya salah satu ilustrator dari The School Magazine. Hari ini, saya akan menceritakan hal yang saya memikirkan sementara membuat ilustrasi.

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Cole’s Book Arcade

As part of the release/promotion of The Grandest Bookshop in the World, I created two illustrations that, in all honesty, terrified me a fair bit. The premise was brilliant: two illustrations of Cole’s Book Arcade, to go in a window display for Dymocks Sydney. In practise: I marked out, with masking tape on my wall, the actual SIZE of the posters, and then I sat down on the floor and stared at the wall for longer than was healthy. Guys, they are nearly as tall as me! I’m used to creating illustrations for books, magazines, and computer screens!

Anyway, eventually I pulled myself together, and painted these.

Melody Finch

Melody Finch is out today! This is a middle grade eco-fantasy journey across Australia, from Queensland down to the SA coast. I got to draw the Murray river! And a diamond firetail! And I designed the title font, which is new for me!

The cover was a collaboration with the authors, and I’m very proud of how it turned out. All the best Ian and Gary, I’m glad this book is out there in the world now 🙂

The Grandest Bookshop in the World!

Today is release day for The Grandest Bookshop in the World by Amelia Mellor, and, delightfully, the first time my illustrations appear on the cover of a published book. The entrancing cover design is by Affirm Press, and I contributed the characters and window illustrations. I can’t wait til I can go to a bookshop and see it for real. But, in the meantime, it has been a pretty exciting distraction from Covid lockown.

As for the actual story: it’s a glorious middle-grade fantasy adventure set in 1890s Melbourne, and the bookshop, known as Cole’s Book Arcade, was a real place. I loved it, and it feels like such a special story, grounded in Melbourne history.

Thank you so much to Meg Whelan, and the Affirm team, for bringing me into this project.

Here’s the book trailer:

And here’s a little close up of the MCs :

TSM Lit Fest

In the depths of Melbourne’s lockdown winter, I was glad to have a distraction in the form of teaching. The School Magazine hosted a Literary Festival in late August, and I was invited to contribute some of my thoughts on illustration.

As always, teaching helps clarify ideas that have been floating in the back of my mind, forcing me to nail them down. And the TSM folk set me some interesting prompts to answer, which led me to question some of the things I do without thinking.

Growing up, I wasn’t one of the kids who was super into drawing, and it’s always really important to me to make sure that kids know it’s not a thing to just be ‘good at drawing’ (or ‘good at maths’ or anything else). You get better at things you spend time working on, and anyone can learn to draw (and do maths) whenever they want. It’s also really important to me that illustration is not simply ‘being good at drawing’. There are so many skills that go into it, and for these videos I found myself focussing on how to be the best illustrator you can be right now, even if you’re not happy with your drawing skills.

Another thing that filtered into my thought process while making the videos is more of a personal reflection. When I was young, and people asked me the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?‘, I never knew what to answer, because mostly I just wanted to read (and climb trees…). But I didn’t really want to edit books, or review them – making judgements seemed horribly difficult – I just wanted to delve into them. I could never have guessed, at nine years old, that drawing would be my pathway to that, but I’m glad I found a way there.

Transcript of both videos below the cut.

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Cover Process

Look at this! My illustration on the cover!

The cover story is a fictionalised account of a real kid – John Hudson – who spent his early childhood as a chimneysweep, was sentenced to a prison ship for theft at age nine and was on the First Fleet to Australia at thirteen. The First Fleet convicts were given clothes, and fed relatively well, so in the story the kid’s feeling happy and hopeful.

I really wanted to capture that sense of peace, relief and new beginnings on the cover. I toyed for a bit with the idea of showing London in the background – a grey smog against a blue sky. And I even had some complicated ideas about the shrouds forming a metaphorical jail cell. But in the end the sails and the birds seemed to work best to convey freedom.

The trickiest part of this stage was making sure the ship was historically accurate while also forming a backdrop that was (a) clearly a ship, (b) emotionally powerful and (c) not too convoluted or distracting, especially behind the character. I had to really push the perspective to get it to work how I wanted, but I was happy in the end. It helped that I had a stack of reference photos from when I visited the Polly Woodside – thanks past me!

In the final rendering stage, I knew I wanted to stay away from black linework. I wanted richly coloured dark lines, and bright light lines. This is the little experimental style guide I made for myself before I started the final piece:

Women In Translation Month (and my own ramblings)

August may be Blaugust, but it is also Women in Translation Month! Which is a joyous and important event, started several years ago by my (brilliant and generous) internet friend Meytal (blog here, twitter here).

I’ve never really participated in the month.

When I was little, I was a bookworm. I borrowed piles of books from the library and read them one after the other until I was sick, grumpy and dehydrated. I lived to consume books. But moving to adult fiction put me off again and again and again. In between occasional authors I loved, reading was awful. I hated books I was given as gifts. I got halfway through other books just to put them away because I was immensely bored. Some books seemed to exist just to hurt me. Other books seemed poorly crafted. Over time my reading rate slowed significantly, because I had no idea how to figure out if I would enjoy a book or not, and it usually seemed easier not to bother with the emotional effort of finding out. I stopped thinking of myself as ‘a reader’ and even the concept of reading tended to make me sad. I never stopped reading altogether. There was a lot of re-reading of books and authors that I knew.

But I’ve got a new love of reading in the last year or so. I started reading non-fiction, and enjoying it. It’s different. Sometimes I need more time between books. Sometimes I need time between chapters. But here are some new favourites:

  • Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe,
  • Saga Land by Kári Gíslason and Richard Fidler,
  • The Bagel by Maria Balinska, and
  • We Were Eight Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

I’ve also been enjoying art gallery books. This whole non-fiction thing might really have all started with the NGV’s Van Gogh and the Seasons in 2017. Or it might have been Ta-Nehisi Coates, lent to me by a friend. It probably doesn’t matter.

I even started reading some poetry and short stories (for which I thank Mary Oliver and Maxine Beneba Clarke respectively). I’m still reading some novels too, at the same sporadic level I have been for years now.

This year when WIT Month came around, I was still thinking ‘Oh, I don’t really read, anymore. I wish I could participate but I guess I can’t because I hate reading, unfortunately.’ But actually it turns out I do read, and I do love it still. It’s not like it was when I was a kid, voraciously devouring entire rows of books. And sometimes I’ll buy or borrow books that I don’t get on with at all. But that’s the risk, and that’s okay.

All this to say, I’ve put two books on hold at the library, by women in translation. They are:

  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (tr. from Japanese)
  • Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdup-Thygeson (tr. from Norwegian)

Convenience Store Woman was recommended by a friend, when I asked if she had any favourite novels by women in translation. I was trying to take part in the month in some sense even before I had my tiny epiphany… And Extraordinary Insects just seems right up my current interest alley.

I’ve also bought Murder Duet: A Musical Case, by Batya Gur (tr. from Hebrew). This one’s on the list because I just really wanted a detective novel.

Only one of those books is likely to get to me during August, but I’m planning to be ready in advance next year. I’ll be reading WIT through the year so I can give recommendations and discuss books and generally be a part of it all 🙂